“Captain, can we keep this fish? Is this one big enough, captain?”
Questions like these go on during the whole charter trip. Especially from people that don’t fish the salt on a regular basis. There is a virtual profusion of state and federally mandated regulations surrounding not just the fishing, but the harvesting of the endless array of saltwater species. Just about every keeper fish has a size, a season and an allowable total take here in Florida.
Fishing regulations are both ever changing and at the same time a wellspring for new input. A trip we had in early April this year kind of put those two issues in perspective.
They booked two trips to be run on consecutive days. It was a father and his adult son who wanted one trip backwater and a offshore trip. Their only requirement was that that their target have “shoulders” (i.e. big fish).
With snook harvest closed and protected, Redfish was the agreed upon target for our backwater trip. By midmorning the son landed a nice 24” red to the envy of his father. They both doubled down on effort and finally Dad had his minimal keeper at a shade over 19.” I asked what they wanted to target next; both black drum and speckled trout would meet their size requirements. They, looking puzzled, answered simultaneously “more redfish.” I pointed to the size ruler showing a daily limit of one per person; again a simultaneous response, but this time “you’re kidding?”
Relating the well known story of the redfish’s near extinction due to commercial overfishing after blackened redfish became a epicurean delight born in Chef Paul Prudhome’s restaurant kitchen in New Orleans in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Only after much bickering and dispute between the commercial and recreational interests did the redfish become distinguished as a game fish, then safe from all commercial fishing and sale. With that explanation as background, they nodded a passive acceptance. After hearing the logical reasoning as to the restrictions, they bought in one 100 percent. The next trip, however, would test that.
Morning dawned on our second trip that involved Gulf fishing and the “of substance” fish would be grouper. As we got underway, I explained that our target would be red grouper only. The other prevalent grouper, the gag, is closed until later in the year due to overfishing.
They both began to land grouper in the 18 and 19 inch class. They were both too engaged in the landing struggle to note that almost all the grouper were gags. Only a few red grouper were in the mix. Finally the big grouper moved in. The son’s rod suddenly bent in half and after a furious fight, he landed a nice 24” gag grouper.
“Nice fish, but we’ll have to release.” Now the gag vs red issue kicked in front and center.
Dad blurted, “Most of the smaller grouper and now this one is gag; thought you said they were overfished and in short supply.”
I explained the government studies on the grouper, just like the redfish, and that results as to biomass were poor; thus the closure.
We released the fish to some grumbles of disagreement as to the closure. Finally, Dad latched onto a lunker. He struggled on the retrieve but finally put an obvious keeper size red grouper in the net.
“Wow, this is a huge fish we’ll have a least two family meals here. How many can we keep, captain?”
“Eight; four per person per day.”
“What! That’s outrageous! What would we do with eight fish this size!
As we boxed the fish, the father continued, “If the gags are considered a threatened species like the redfish, let me keep one and let the rest go and do the same for these reds treat them just like the redfish.”
How’s that for a creative idea! All of us who fish here on a regular basis have thought of ways to sustain a full year fishery for the only fish “of substance” available here in SW Florida Gulf waters; only took these guys a morning to come to the same conclusion.
“Captain, without them the bottom fishing would be mainly for small fish, right?”
“You’re right on. Grouper are the recreational anglers year around mainstay here”, I responded.
“Maybe they need somebody with ‘redfish sense’ to make these decisions.”
Capt. Bill Walsh owns a Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.